10 Great Thriller Movies Recommended By Denis Villeneuve

Since he burst onto the scene with “Incendies” in 2010, Denis Villeneuve has been a steady, singular presence at the cinema. With now 11 films under his belt and coming off the back of yet another critically acclaimed barn burner at the box office, the Canadian auteur seems to have further established himself as a true master of large-scale spectacle and easily one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.

To celebrate Villeneuve’s long-awaited return to theaters this year, we have rounded up 10 thriller movies, listed in no specific order, that the mastermind behind “Prisoners”, “Arrival”, and “Blade Runner 2049” has spoken highly of over the years. From Oscar-winning masterpieces that influenced his own work to overlooked arthouse gems that deserve a second look, see the complete list below.


1. Duel (1971)

As is the case with many of the great filmmakers of his generation, Denis Villeneuve has a soft spot for Steven Spielberg and frequently credits him as one of his childhood heroes who ignited his love for cinema at a very young age. In 2022, the Canadian took the stage at the PGA award to acknowledge the huge creative debt he owes Spielberg (who was also in attendance), as a “master storyteller whose work moved me to a chore and first made me realize the mark of a true artist”.

Spielberg was barely 24 when he helmed this made-for-TV road thriller about a middle-aged businessman (Dennis Weaver) traveling across states while being pursued by a reckless truck driver throughout the Californian desert, but the film might just be the skeleton key to his entire oeuvre. It not only set the template for the classic monster-thriller masterpieces that were to come (“Jaws”, “Jurassic Park”) but also left a lasting impression on a young Villeneuve, who fondly recalls discussing it at length at school while wondering who the magician behind the camera was who transformed “trucks into bullies”.


2. Tenet (2020)

While Christopher Nolan has taken home a treasure trove of accolades for his Oppenheimer biopic, few could make head or tail of his previous, and to this day considerably divisive 2020 film. A Bond-inspired sci-fi thriller starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson as two globe-trotting secret agents moving back and forth through time to prevent World War III, “Tenet” may have earned mixed reviews during its pandemic lockdown-era release, but in the eyes of Villeneuve — a massive fan of Nolan’s work who also happens to be a huge advocate for the theatrical experience and premium large formats like IMAX — it was an “incredible cinematic achievement” that blew him away and plays best in theaters.

“The level of mastery of Christopher Nolan is unmatched, he is by far one of the best filmmakers working in the world today,” gushed Villeneuve, who proceeded to brush off comparisons to him while introducing a recent IMAX screening of “Tenet”. In the same conversation, the “Dune” auteur went on to state that it’s a “beautiful compliment to be associated with a filmmaker of that caliber” and that watching him continue to reinvent himself throughout his career is deeply inspiring. “To bring intellectual concepts in that scope to the screen right now — it’s very rare. Every movie that he comes out with, I have more admiration for his work.”


3. A Prophet (2009)

A Prophet

In June 2017, the New York Times asked some notable filmmakers for their favorite movies of the 21st century, including Denis Villeneuve. Though he argued that lists are better suited for grocery stores, the “Dune” director came up with some of his top movie picks since 2000. Along with cinema studies standards such as “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men”, one of the lesser-known titles to grace his curated list is this Cannes prize-winner directed by Jacques Audiard, which centers around a fresh-faced young Algerian convict who rises through the ranks of the Corsican mafia while serving a six-year prison sentence.

Not a film for the faint of heart, “A Prophet” offers a gritty, unsparing look at organized crime and the harsh living conditions of French jails that vividly details the lead character’s evolution from low-level enforcer to criminal mastermind as he slowly wins the confidence of his fellow inmates and gets pulled deeper and deeper into the underworld. With Villeneuve himself not being a stranger to slow-burn crime thrillers, it feels very appropriate that the “Prisoners” director geeked out over the film and singled out the scene where a deer is killed in slow motion by a car as “one of the most powerful cinematic shots of the last decade”.


4. Casino Royale (2006)

Casino Royale

Contrary to what his global reputation as one of the figureheads of highbrow prestige-fare may suggest, Villeneuve has plenty of respect for mainstream titles that in some quarters are often dismissed as guilty pleasures or crass entertainment. In an interview with BBC Radio 1, the Canadian auteur made no secret of his love for James Bond, declaring himself a massive fan of the decade-spanning spy saga since a very early age and revealing that there’s nothing like a good 007 flick to cheer him up.

Sean Connery first donned the three-piece suit in the early 1960s and is still considered by quite a few to be the quintessential Bond. That said, Villeneuve made a point of saluting Daniel Craig’s recent tenure while arguing that whoever takes up the mantle of 007 next will struggle to measure up to him. And though he doesn’t rule out the possibility of mounting a Bond film in the future, the Canadian noted in a podcast hosted by Josh Horowitz that rebooting the series so soon after Craig’s run would be a tough act to follow, as the English actor “brought something so unique and strong to the character that is probably unmatchable”.

We’ll be first in line opening night if Villeneuve ends up getting the gig. In the meantime, revisit Craig’s first and strongest outing as the womanizing MI6 spy, also featuring a fantastic one-off performance by Mads Mikkelsen in the villain role, in “Casino Royale” — the Bond film that Villeneuve seems to hold in greater esteem.


5. Dogtooth (2009)

As Yorgos Lanthimos becomes increasingly famous and continues to cement himself as one of the most prominent names in the industry to look out for, his early Greek-language breakthrough only seems to grow in esteem with each passing year. In this instant classic in the feel-bad cinema canon, which got a shoutout in Villeneuve’s roundup list of favorite movies since 2000, three adult children who have never left their home are brainwashed and consistently fed lies by their manipulative parents to ensure they never try to run away and escape.

At once startling and morbidly funny, this macabre thriller announced Lanthimos on the world stage and gave audiences a first taste of the Greek provocateur’s now-trademark blend of gruesome violence and pitch-black humor. “The madness in “Dogtooth” is the most refreshing thing I’ve seen in a long time,” wrote Villeneuve in 2017. “I’m still laughing at the crazy adults running to catch airplanes falling into their garden, because their father convinced them that they were fruit dropping from the sky. Yorgos Lanthimos may be one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.”